ANKARA: A new Netflix drama, set against the stunning backdrop of 1950s Istanbul, has opened a Pandora’s box in Turkey over the recent history of discrimination toward the country’s Jewish community.
Turkish-made “The Club” has already left its mark both cinematically and in terms of social awareness.
The movie relates the story of Matilda, a Jewish woman recently released from prison and working as a seamstress in a popular Istanbul nightclub, who reunites with her teenage daughter Rasel, who grew up in an orphanage.
The unhappy reunion takes place during a period of social and political turbulence in Turkey coinciding with a wave of religious and racial attacks on the Jewish community.
One of the main “ghosts” that haunt the Netflix drama is the discriminatory wealth tax. Matilda comes from a wealthy Jewish family that lost its fortune after Turkey imposed a tax on non-Muslims in 1942 that was 20 times higher than on Muslims.
In one month alone, more than 1,000 people unable to pay their dues were taken away to a labor camp in the eastern district of Askale where many worked until they died. Matilda lost her father and brother there.
More than 30,000 Jews left Turkey after the imposition of the tax, although it was dropped in 1944 in the wake of intense international pressure.
Nesi Altaras, a member of Turkey’s shrinking Jewish community and editor for the online Jewish publication Avlaremoz, said it was the first time Jews had been genuinely represented on Turkish television as three-dimensional characters as opposed to “evil bankers.”
He told Arab News: “The show does not hold back from explaining reality as it is. It doesn’t make excuses for the discrimination Jews, Greeks, and Armenians endured and continue to face in Turkey. It also makes its audience face the facts on the racist wealth tax of the 1940s, which has all been forgotten by mainstream society.
“The wealth tax isn’t taught in schools or discussed in most media. ‘The Club,’ by outlining the racist policy and calling it out directly, will lead to Turkish people realizing the foundations of contemporary Istanbul,” he said.
Altaras’ grandparents on both sides suffered under the wealth tax, while his great grandfather was sent to the forced labor camp. He noted that the show had reintroduced Turks to the Jews and shed light on the financial and political hardships the Jewish community had faced in recent history.
“Such initiatives will help us to make our voices heard. It is now time to reclaim our equal citizenship rights rather than continuing our decades-long silence. Such Netflix shows are therefore very valuable for this cause,” he added.
Altaras pointed out that the use of Ladino language in the drama by Sephardic Jews was new to many people in Turkey who for decades had lived alongside them. Ladino had been the mother tongue for the majority of Turkish Jews before nationalist attacks against them.
“The level of ignorance is so high that most viewers didn’t even recognize the Ladino being spoken in the show. This has been a learning opportunity and led many new readers to Avlaremoz,” he said.
Ozgur Kaymak, a lecturer at MEF University in Istanbul and an expert on the Jewish community in Turkey, said: “Through this drama, many people from society at large who they know little if anything about, or who they sometimes approach with prejudice to the point of anti-Semitism, get a chance to see that the Jews of Istanbul are in fact one of their own; people with similar issues and concerns, who share joy in a similar way.
“They go to jail, they grow up in an orphanage, they fall in love, and there are also poor Jews,” she added.
Kaymak noted that putting the spotlight on similarities between different religious and ethnic groups in Turkish society could help people realize how coexistence with non-Muslim minority groups was possible today.
“I find this very valuable. Exposing bitter memories such as the wealth tax and Turkification policies is also important, as they hold a heavy place in the memories of the Jews living in Istanbul, even if they are covered and sunk into oblivion,” she said.
She pointed out that the taboo-breaking movie had deconstructed a nostalgic romanticism in Turkish society about “beautiful memories with our non-Muslim neighbors and will push greater segments of society to come to terms with their past.”
Louis Fishman, associate professor at Brooklyn College, told Arab News that while the show highlighted historical injustices committed against Jewish, Greek, and Armenian communities, its impact should be kept in proportion.
“It is a beautifully written and produced series which in no way should be confused as a history lesson. Rather, like good art, it encourages the viewer to ask questions, to learn more, while absorbing them in the daily lives of 1950s Istanbul,” he said.
He added that while the debate around the Jewish community was exciting, the focus should be on a brilliant story about relationships, identities, love, and how the lives of the characters involved were shaped by political events.
The number of Jews living in Turkey has declined from 81,000, recorded in a census in 1927, to 13,000.